Daily Archives: August 15, 2014

Earnings Contine To Decline 6 Years On From The Crash; But Could This New Willingness To Tolerate Austerity Be Mobililsed In A Good Cause, Rather Than A Bad One? – Column 15.8.14.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 15.8.14
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EARLIER THIS WEEK, the Oxford English Dictionary published its annual list of new words, for inclusion in the august online volume.  I stared at the list for a while, searching half-heartedly for a clue to the great political mystery of our time; the question of how the Coalition government has persuaded the people of Britain to tolerate the sharpest decline in real earnings for more than a century, without either a dramatic collapse in its own poll ratings, or – in most quarters – the slightest ripple of real protest.

And what struck me about the new words, as they rolled before my eyes, was just how many of them conjure up the image of a nation slumped on the sofa, wearing a thermal onesie, and medicating its anxieties – financial and personal – with large doses of screen and online entertainment.  The new words, for example, include “binge-watching”, the practice of watching an entire television drama series at once, over a day or a weekend; and also “click-bait”, the industry name for sensational rubbish placed upfront on websites to attract casual internet surfers.

All of which makes a kind of sense; for the economic numbers reveal with terrific clarity why the average British citizen might currently be in full flight from reality, and in search of fun that doesn’t involve the expense of going out of the house.  On Wednesday, after a few months of hesitant improvement, the Bank of England revised its prediction for wages growth in 2014 from a modest 2.5%, down to an almost invisible 1.25%, well below the rate of inflation. This means, in effect, that six years on from the financial crisis  of 2008, the real income of the average British worker in still in decline, having already fallen by more than 8%.  What’s more, these overall statistics may well understate the plight of most people on ordinary salaries; the figures often exclude those hardest hit by the recession, particularly those forced into “freelance” work, who may be earning little or nothing.

Yet for all that, the British people broadly seem minded to accept that the decline in their wealth and prosperity has been inevitable; and all this has taken place in an economy once thought so sensitive to any raid on the voters’ pockets that parties of the centre-left dared not propose even modest increases in income tax to improve public services, amounting to a mere 1% or 2% of earnings.

So how have we reached this strange and  disturbing point of political stasis?   Part of the reason for the current uncanny political calm perhaps lies in the particular pattern of the current round of recession and spending cuts.  It has, for example, borne particularly hard on middle-aged women; and if you want to inflict serious economic pain without provoking an aggressive response, it certainly makes sense to bear down hardest on a section of the population who are simply too busy trying to cope with various work and caring responsibilities, on an ever-diminishing income, to get involved in political protest.

At heart, though, the secret of the UK government’s success in taking money from the people without paying a political penalty lies in their iron grip on the narrative of this recession, as  expressed through most of Britain’s mainstream media, and rarely challenged in public debate, certainly not by an ideologically  confused and divided Labour Party.  In a classic demonstration of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”, the economic right has succeeded in persuading people – largely in defiance of the facts – that the British economy was on the brink of catastrophe in 2010, that high spending by the previous Labour government was to blame, and that the current “austerity” – for some, if not for all – is therefore not a policy decision, but something to be endured because it cannot be helped.

And beyond that, they have also succeeded in persuading a majority that this unavoidable economic policy is “working”, although for most of us it clearly is not;  this is a formidable triumph of dominant narrative over actual lived experience, and raises deep questions about exactly how people are supposed to access alternative and more accurate narratives, in a world where contact with others in our socio-economic group is increasingly limited to the presentation of a carefully-edited self-image on online social networks.

The exception, of course, is the Scottish referendum campaign, which has unleashed, at least in some quarters, the idea of a Nordic-style Scotland that might actually choose to pay more into the public purse, in order to achieve Norwegian levels of social equality, opportunity, and security.  Yet faced with this brief glimpse of the undeniable truth that there is an alternative to the neoliberal consensus prevailing at Westminster, right-wing politicians and commentators – and the “No” campaign which so often echoes their views – have been tripping over themselves to point out that Scottish voters are probably as averse to paying tax as voters anywhere else, and will never shell out another three or four pence in the pound on the off-chance of building a society free – for example –  from the scar of endemic child poverty.

What we have learned from this mighty recession, in other words, is that  there are forces which can counterbalance the addictive materialism of Britain’s boom years, and  that people will tolerate a substantial loss of disposable income if they believe it is necessary.  What we lack, though, is the fully-fledged political counter-narrative that might mobilise that popular flexibility and  tolerance in the good cause of greater social well-being and opportunity, rather than the bad  cause of bailing out a failed and exteme form of capitalism that no longer serves the interests of the majority.  In Scotland’s referendum debate, one version of an alternative narrative has made a brief and tantalising appearance, and has influenced some aspects of SNP policy.  But until a mainstream political party emerges that will adopt that new narrative wholeheartedly,  it will remain a voice at the margins; constantly outgunned by the big beasts of the current Westminster consensus, who speak proudly of their  “economic recovery”, and are never challenged to change their language or their vocabulary,  to reflect the reality of the vast majority of British lives.

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Fringe First Winners 2014 – Week 2

Here they are, our seven superb Week 2 Fringe First Winners, awarded yesterday morning at the Assembly Rooms!

The Carousel by Jennifer Tremblay Stellar Quines at Traverse Theatre
The Day Sam Died Armazem Theatre Company at New Town Theatre
The Initiate by Alexandra Wood Paines Plough at Summerhall
Lippy by Bush Moukarzel with Mark O’Halloran Dead Centre at Traverse Theatre
Object Lesson by Geoff Sobelle Aurora Nova/ Geoff Sobelle at Summerhall
Pioneer curious directive at Zoo Southside
Sanitise Melanie Jordan and Caitlin Skinner at Underbelly Cowgate

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Sanitise

THEATRE
Sanitise
4 stars ****
Underbelly Cowgate (Venue 61)

WHAT IS clean and what is dirty? asks the Fringe pogramme entry for Sanitise, at the Underbelly; and for a sharp, witty and vivid one-hour analysis of our society’s neurotic relationship with the very idea of filth, you’re unlikely to do better than this new piece of wordless drama co-created by performer Melanie Jordan and young Edinburgh director Caitlin Skinner.  Our heroine arrives in the room wincing at the hideous grubbiness of the world outside her home, advances onto a stage entirely occupied by a shining white bathroom, and starts – almost ecstatically – to clean invisible spots of dirt from the gleaming porcelain, while stroking it with unconcealed passion.

As her fondest imaginings appear in animations projected onto the shower-curtain, though, we begin to realise that there are stormy depths beneath her prim exterior; notably a passion for an office colleague called John which causes her to keep a mouldy old sandwich of his as a souvenir, and a level of frustration, following the apparent failure of their relationship,  that moves her  to send off via Amazon for a Madam Whiplash outfit, complete with scarlet basque, whip, and dizzyingly high-heeled red shoes.

Even that, though, fails to fill the gap in our heroine’s life; and after a flirtation with a hideous growth of mould beneath the bath, she descends into an orgy of self-disgust, reflected in ever more dramatic and starting projected images.  Her story remains unresolved, of course; but this elegant little show, performed by Jordan with unfailing grace, wit and skill, raises some key questions about how we can possibly fulfil our need for a bit of old-fashioned filth and spontaneity, in a society where everything has to be sanitised and sealed off from the hazards of human touch – including, perhaps, even sex itself.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
p. 346

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Sanitise

THEATRE
Sanitise
4 stars ****
Underbelly Cowgate (Venue 61)

WHAT IS clean and what is dirty? asks the Fringe pogramme entry for Sanitise, at the Underbelly; and for a sharp, witty and vivid one-hour analysis of our society’s neurotic relationship with the very idea of filth, you’re unlikely to do better than this new piece of wordless drama co-created by performer Melanie Jordan and young Edinburgh director Caitlin Skinner.  Our heroine arrives in the room wincing at the hideous grubbiness of the world outside her home, advances onto a stage entirely occupied by a shining white bathroom, and starts – almost ecstatically – to clean invisible spots of dirt from the gleaming porcelain, while stroking it with unconcealed passion.

As her fondest imaginings appear in animations projected onto the shower-curtain, though, we begin to realise that there are stormy depths beneath her prim exterior; notably a passion for an office colleague called John which causes her to keep a mouldy old sandwich of his as a souvenir, and a level of frustration, following the apparent failure of their relationship,  that moves her  to send off via Amazon for a Madam Whiplash outfit, complete with scarlet basque, whip, and dizzyingly high-heeled red shoes.

Even that, though, fails to fill the gap in our heroine’s life; and after a flirtation with a hideous growth of mould beneath the bath, she descends into an orgy of self-disgust, reflected in ever more dramatic and starting projected images.  Her story remains unresolved, of course; but this elegant little show, performed by Jordan with unfailing grace, wit and skill, raises some key questions about how we can possibly fulfil our need for a bit of old-fashioned filth and spontaneity, in a society where everything has to be sanitised and sealed off from the hazards of human touch – including, perhaps, even sex itself.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
p. 346

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The Initiate

THEATRE
The Initiate
4 stars ****
Summerhall (Venue 26)

WHO DO WE MEAN, when we say “we”?   Is it we in Scotland, or we in the UK, or we who come from the same ethnic and cultural background?  In a society at peace, we can sustain any number of different identities, jostling comfortably side by side.  When violence intervenes, though, the “we” question can become much sharper; and in Alexandra Wood’s clever and disturbing new play, presented by Paines Plough at Summerhall, a Somali-born taxi-driver living and working in London, proud of his still-fresh British citizenship, finds himself caught in a painful clash of identities, when Somali pirates take a British couple hostage, and his sons are bullied at school because they look like the men involved.

So as a Somali, Delmar feels bound to “do something”, to show that not all Somalis are murderous hostage-takers; but as a British citizen, he faces tough questions both about why he feels so involved in this case, and – once he arrives back in Somalia to try to negotiate the couple’s release – about how he will use the relative power of his position as a western passport-holder.  In a series of dialogues with his boss, his son, his wife, his nephew in Somalia, the chief hostage-taker, and the couple themselves, Delmar emerges as a kind of everyman for troubled times, trying to survive between the grinding millstones of historic forces he cannot control.  And if Alexandra Wood’s play, in a dozen sharp scenes, feels slightly unresolved, like part of a larger whole, it nonetheless creates an intense, original and memorable play for today, with outstanding performances from Andrew French as Delmar, and from Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis as a range of characters, including the kidnapper who turns out to be a strange connoisseur of English idioms, particularly delighted by the idea that our most cherished dreams may be nothing but “pie in the sky.”

Joyce McMillan
Until 23
p. 318

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The Day Sam Died

THEATRE
The Day Sam Died
4 stars ****
New Town Theatre (Venue 7)

IF THE FUTURE OF healthcare – as public service or private business – is one of the key issues facing all modern democracies, then this latest explosively brilliant show from Armazem Theatre of Brazil is the play that takes the hospital drama by the scruff off the neck, and turns it into a raging, beautiful and surreal piece of theatre about what is now a global struggle between extreme neoliberal capitalism, and more democratic and communitarian views of the good society.  At the centre of the play – co-written by Mauricio Arruda Mendonca and director Paulo de Moraes – stands the figure of the Chief Surgeon, a highly-skilled, drug-addicted barbarian who treats his patients with contempt, and sees it as natural that the best healthcare should be commandeered by the rich.

His life takes a complex turn, though, on the day when, in a series of repeating scenarios, he encounters three possible different people called Sam.  There’s the junior operating theatre nurse who goes berserk and starts wielding a gun in the hospital foyer, raging about how a just and compassionate hospital should be run.  There’s the senior woman judge, Samantha, who needs a life-saving operation, but questions the morality of jumping the treatment queue.  And there’s Samir the former clown, suffering from worsening dementia after a lifetime of entertaining the nation’s children.

For a hugely rich and beautiful 80 minutes, punctuated by thunderous live rock music, de Moraes’s production leads us through the dream-world of these three scenarios, in a torrent of shifting light, and of alternating fury and stillness.  And at the heart of the show, there are a series of outstanding performances from some of Brazil’s finest actors, including Patricia Selonk as Samantha, and Ricardo Martins as the Chief Surgeon, the living embodiment of the belief that economic might is right, and that the poor and weak deserve nothing but the suffering that inevitably comes their way.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
p. 296

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